The Sucking Sound at The Wall Street Journal

Wall_street_journalDavid Wessel, the deputy Washington bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal, recently gave a talk

at the Yale School of Management, which he titled "Can Newspaper Journalism Survive Blogs, Fox News and Karl Rove?" (Listen here on iTunes.)  Speaking candidly, Wessel readily acknowledged that the print newspaper business is in trouble, and even hinted that some of our major newspapers, the Journal perhaps included, may not ultimately be long for the world. The problem, as he describes it, is twofold: First, readers and advertisers continue to move from print to the internet, a medium that old school papers can’t monetize very well. Second — and this is the crux of his argument — he sees the major papers also suffering because they face competition from more overtly politicized media players, such as Fox, Drudge and various blogs that don’t adhere to traditional standards of journalism. While The Wall Street Journal strives to be "fair and balanced," Fox News (rather ironically) and many right and left-wing blogs readily embrace bias and manage to capitalize on it fairly well. This leaves the middle of the road media in trouble.

Now, there is surely some merit to this argument. But it really doesn’t seem to get to the root of the problem. Wessel paints the WSJ’s woes as being essentially political when they really are not. It’s more about business and culture than anything else. When the internet took off in the late 90s, we heard about how it lowered barriers to entry and allowed players with little capital to get online and compete. Now, ten years later, we’re seeing the results. Established content players have found themselves competing with an infinite number of specialized content providers, some of which are damn good, and some not. (Perhaps we can lump the unabashedly political blogs in the latter group.) Put simply, the information world is being splintered much like the television world was with the advent of cable, except even more so, and this leaves readers with many viable choices. For better or worse, the generalist press seems almost doomed to give way to specialized blogs and web sites that readers can aggregate into an organic whole with the help of bookmarks and newfangled "feed readers." (See, for example, Google Reader, MyYahoo, or Bloglines.) This probably includes The Wall Street Journal. And would David Wessel be surprised to see America’s leading financial paper eventually supplanted by a changing constellation of alternatives? Probably not. You can already hear the doubt in his voice … and very faintly the sucking sound in the halls of Dow Jones.

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